How do women get cast in stories? That’s the question novelist Justine Musk raises in her TEDx Talk: “Women are not the heroes of big stories, epic stories. We are instead, the mothers and lovers and wives and mistresses, the muses and personal assistants, the femme fatales and fantasies and manic pixie dream girls, in someone else’s Big Story. This someone else is usually a dude. Even the smart, feisty, bookish girl (if she’s not careful) gets cast as the Hermione to someone else’s Harry Potter.”
Musk’s novels tell a different story. The author of contemporary fantasy novel BloodAngel (Roc Penguin) and its sequel Lord of Bones (Roc Penguin), she also penned the young adult novel Uninvited (MTV Books). Her novels cast young women – a painter or a wayward high school student, for instance – in epic adventures that involve paranormal forces and battles between angels and demons.
Musk says, “My writing reminds me who I am and who I want to be.” Justine Musk inspires women and men to be heroes of their own epic and to live “the deep yes” of their dreams.
I wanted to know what books have mattered to Justine. In this Books That Matter interview, she clues us in to recognizing herself in a Stephen King character, the admiration she has for characters that own their flaws, and that she is just getting started.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Justine: Misery by Stephen King. I was writing short stories and novels, but that inner shift of identity didn’t happen until I recognized myself in the process King describes in the book. His protagonist was a novelist, and he would lose himself the way I did; he would “fall through a hole in the page” into this personal otherworld and re-emerge hours later. That hit home for me. I lived in a small Canadian town, and Misery showed me that there were other people in the world as dreamy and eccentric as I was – and they were writers.
What character do you still imagine being or being friends or seeking counsel from and why?
The character I still imagine being or being friends or seeking counsel from is P.K. from The Power of One or Prince Hal from Henry IV. It’s interesting that they’re both guys, but they were the characters that pulled at my imagination the most (along with Luke Skywalker). P.K. was this lonely, bullied little kid, like I was, but he had a talent for boxing, and fierce determination, and grew up into a badass with heart and a social conscience. Meanwhile Prince Hal led this dissolute, decadent lifestyle, and no one expected much of him. But he shrugs off his old identity to become this brilliantly strategic King. Both those characters – flaws and all – were their own people; they were outsiders who invented themselves. I admired that.
In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing?
I don’t expect traditional publishing to disappear at all. It will become more prestigious. To buy a print book means that you care about the author’s work enough to want it as a physical object in your space. Print-books send a message about your identity to yourself as well as others. So a lot of writing careers will be hybrid careers, the writer moving between old-school and new-school advantages.
Writers often teach to pay rent, and a lot of that teaching is moving online, with interesting potential to scale. The market will eventually drive the price of ebooks down to nothing. As soon as possible, writers need a very clear sense of who they are and who they write for and how best to convey that online in order to pull in those readers. We have to shift out of this mass market mentality of one thing at one price for everybody, and find ways to create different experiences at different price points, so that most of your revenue can come from, say, the very special limited editions you sell to your hardcore fans. The stuff you give away for free drives up the value of the stuff that you sell.
Writers have always struggled to make a living. What is changing is the nature of that struggle, the problem of discoverability, the need to build a community around your voice and vision. People with an entrepreneurial spirit who are willing to learn and experiment have the potential to do very well, and maybe they’ll be the ones to blaze trails and build new models for the rest of us. But if you can’t tell a compelling story, if you can’t emotionally resonate with the people formerly known as your audience, none of the other stuff will get you anywhere. I think the pursuit of mastery has gotten more important, not less, and I don’t think we emphasize that enough.
If you had the time, talent, grit, and support, what book would you write?
The book I would have kill to have written is What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. It’s this beautifully structured literary novel that comes at you like a psychological thriller, set in the New York art world over decades. I recommend it to everybody. Just writing about it makes me want to read it yet again to figure out how she does it.
The one thing you hope readers of your novel BloodAngel come away with is what?
The sense that I am just getting started, there are many books ahead, and they want to join me for the journey.
Justine Musk has authored three books: the contemporary fantasy novel BloodAngel, its sequel, Lord of Bones and the Young Adult supernatural thriller, Uninvited. A self-proclaimed “seeker,” Musk isn’t afraid to take unconventional paths and is one of the first people to ever use a site like Pinterest to plan out a novel. To learn more about Justine Musk, visit justinemusk.com.